Reunion Row Redux
By Debra Nussbaum Cohen
The Yeshivah of Flatbush refused to allow a gay alumnus to bring his partner to his 10th anniversary class reunion, which was held late last month, and the decision is spurring a wave of criticism from current and former students at the Brooklyn school.
Classmates of the gay Flatbush graduate, who is now a doctor working at Brooklyn’s Maimonides hospital, were so upset by the school’s position that they started a Facebook group called "Open Reunions," which 269 people have joined in the dozen days since it was started.
Members include several current students, a Nobel Prize winner who attended the school over six decades ago and a former principal of the school, Rabbi Alan Stadtmauer, who resigned from his position in 2004 as he came to terms with being gay himself.
The "Open Reunions" group calls for the school to allow alumni to bring any guest they choose to the gatherings, which are organized to mark the 10th and 25th anniversaries of class graduations.
"There’s no reason that a policy about who can come to a reunion need be a battleground. Let’s just define things in terms that are going to get rid of the need for a conflict," said Erez Lieberman, a member of the Flatbush class of 1997, who organized the Facebook group with another classmate.
Lieberman, who is straight, is currently in a joint Harvard-MIT graduate program studying evolution and genomics.
"It would seem like a very simple improvement if they let everyone bring a guest, and perhaps couch it in language that allows the yeshiva to avoid making a decision about some concept in religious law that might be very complex. People could bring their mom or their best friend from college," he said.
In response to a request for an interview, Yeshivah of Flatbush Executive Vice President Dennis Eisenberg issued this statement: "There are standards of halacha [Jewish law] that guide the Orthodox community. All of our graduates are welcome to attend our reunion but only those involved in recognized halachic relationships may register to attend as a couple."
Eisenberg declined to answer any questions.
The doctor at the heart of this issue said, in an exclusive interview with The Jewish Week, "They don’t know which relationships are halachic relationships. A gay relationship is different because it’s more obvious. But what about a husband and wife who aren’t shomer niddah, or not shomer Shabbos [observing the laws relating to marital sex or Shabbat]? But they’re invited anyway.
"It’s a very convenient way of covering themselves, but I don’t think that it is an adequate response," said the doctor, who asked that his name not be used because he doesn’t want to upset his family, which he described as extremely religious. Since coming out as gay, the doctor says his relationship with family members has become strained.
While he grew up in Flatbush, he now lives in a different Brooklyn neighborhood with his partner of five years.
"It’s upsetting. Ultimately it’s their loss," he said of the school. Though he didn’t go the reunion, an outcome of this imbroglio has been that he has reconnected with many former schoolmates, "who have been so supportive."
The doctor himself is not involved with the Facebook group.
Yeshivah of Flatbush, which includes elementary and high schools, has long been known as a bastion of Modern Orthodoxy but many say it has moved more to the right in recent years.
"I was there a few weeks ago, and I have the feeling that the place has become a little more rigid than it was before," said Dr. Eric Kandel, a 1944 graduate of the school who is a neuroscience professor at Columbia University and in 2000 was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
"The Yeshivah of Flatbush, which has been providing leadership in Jewish education, should lead," he said. "Am I surprised at the school’s position? No. Disappointed? Yes. It would have been nice for them to take a different position. This is not nice, not productive and not good for the Jewish community."
Not all Flatbush alumni and students are in agreement with the "Open Reunions" organizers, of course. Posted to the group’s Facebook were anonymous comments disagreeing with their stance, and supporting the school’s.
While many commenters supported the group’s efforts, others wrote that excluding homosexuals is biblically mandated, that the school has the right to do what it wishes, and that the school cannot condone homosexuality by allowing gay alumni to bring partners.
The controversy comes more than six years after "Trembling Before G-d," an award-winning documentary about gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews increased awareness of homosexuality in the Orthodox world.
The Yeshivah of Flatbush controversy bears a resemblance to the much-publicized Noah Feldman affair. Feldman, a Harvard law professor who graduated from the Maimonides School in Brookline, Mass., wrote a New York Times Magazine piece accusing the school of intolerance. Feldman, who is intermarried, said the school refused to publish lifecycle notices about his marriage and children in its alumni bulletin. He also accused the school of not publishing a photograph of him and his wife at a Maimonides reunion, suggesting it was because his wife isn’t Jewish.
Asked whether Flatbush allows intermarried alums and their spouses to attend a reunion, Yeshivah of Flatbush’s Eisenberg said, "The same policy would apply. It hasn’t happened, not to my knowledge."
‘Your Partner Cannot Attend’
The Flatbush brouhaha began when the young doctor tried to reserve two spots at the Dec. 22 reunion without specifying the gender of his guest.
After changing his airline ticket so that he could return to New York in time to make the reunion, he received an e-mail from the school telling him that only spouses and fiancés could accompany alumni. He was the only alumnus to get such a communication and said that while that may be the school’s policy, in practice people bring other friends.
The doctor said that he still wanted to bring a guest, again without specifying the gender or name. This time, he got an e-mail from the school’s executive vice president.
"As previously stated to you, we welcome your attendance and look forward to your participation. ?However, your partner cannot attend," wrote Eisenberg. "The policy of the school that is enforced is that only graduates and their spouses (engagements are recognized) are invited. We cannot acknowledge or define your partner relationship as one that falls under this policy. We kindly ask you to respect and follow our Yeshiva’s policy and attend the reunion without your partner."
The doctor sent his friends from Flatbush an e-mail explaining why he wouldn’t be there.
"Despite never having disclosed the gender of my partner (or even using the word partner), I was politely asked to come alone to the event. Unfortunately, that’s not good enough for me anymore. I’ve reached a point in my life where half of an invitation just isn’t enough. If I’m going to come to the event, I’m going to come as I am, without hiding anything; I’m proud of myself and my accomplishments. I’m not going to make a scene, but I’m also not going to show up knowing that a huge part of my life has been omitted."
The doctor, like his friends, was mindful of another gay alumnus who had gone to his own reunion a decade earlier, with his partner, and was forcibly escorted out by a security guard.
"I thought that over 10 years, something would have changed in the yeshiva," the doctor told The Jewish Week.
He came out to a few close friends shortly before they graduated from Flatbush and with a couple of the rabbis he most respected just after he left the school. Nonetheless, he says, the fact that he his homosexual wasn’t widely known.
School administrators may have known about it from the biographical sketch that he, like the rest of his classmates, was asked to write for a reunion yearbook. In that bio, he included a reference to his partner.
In the yearbook distributed at the reunion, his bio was included. But the reference to his partner was deleted.
"There’s an effort to take out any mention of homosexuality. They feel like if they acknowledge it there’s going to some sort of huge problem. They’re just afraid of it, and any mention of it is completely ignored," he said.
Rachel Klechevsky graduated from Flatbush in 2002, and wishes her alma mater took a different approach in its dealings with gay students past and present. She said, "No one would come out while they were at Flatbush. What they’d go through would be so bad.
"We just want Flatbush to be more aware of gay students in general," Klechevsky added. "They do ask us for donations, and many people have said they will not give because of this. A lot of people are unhappy that they missed out seeing their friends because of something so trivial.
"It’s not like they’re doing anything to offend anyone," she said. "They just want to show up."